Waiting for a fish to bite, Wren Hughes sits patiently on the bank of a small pond in Martin Luther King Jr. Park. He's perched on an upturned white bucket, gazing intently at the lines from two fishing poles propped on either side of him. Through the trees, a plume of orange fire and smoke can be seen rising from the nearby Valero Refinery.
Hughes has been fishing this pond for three years and has never seen any advisories about contaminants polluting the water.
"I've never gotten sick or anything," he says. "I think I'm pretty healthy."
But James Baker of the Sierra Club believes that these and other local waters may be polluted with mercury, and he's asking officials from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) to update their testing program and inform the public of possible mercury contamination.
"The Sierra Club does not want anglers lured into a false sense of security because they do not see a fishing advisory sign [for mercury]," says Baker.
A search of the Right To Know Network, an independent pollution-information database, shows that 18 facilities in Tennessee released a total of 3,559 pounds of mercury compounds into the atmosphere and 56 pounds in the waters in 2004. Four of those facilities are located in Shelby County. The TVA Allen Fossil Plant released 170 pounds, and Cargill, Inc. released 25 pounds. DuPont's Memphis plant and the Valero Refinery both released less than five pounds each.
Recent studies have shown that mercury contamination can cause developmental disabilities in small children and can increase the risk of coronary heart disease in middle-aged men.
Based on testing performed by TDEC officials over 10 years ago, portions of the Loosahatchie River, McKellar Lake, Nonconnah Creek, the Wolf River, and the Mississippi River have been deemed no-fishing areas because of other pollutants, but local waterways have not been cited for mercury pollution.
Greg Denton with TDEC's Division of Water Pollution and Control says testing for mercury and other pollutants was performed last year, but the results are not yet complete.
"People shouldn't be eating the fish from areas that have posted no-fishing advisories regardless of what pollutants those areas are posted for," says Denton.
But the Sierra Club's Baker would like TDEC to test areas for mercury and other pollutants more frequently than every 10 years.
"Would you want to go to the dentist once every 10 years because you are afraid of what the dentist might find?" asks Baker.